Movie Review: The abnormalities of ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ make it a sleeper success
Director: Riley Stearns
Writers: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Synopsis: After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, Casey joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself.
If you would’ve told me the The Art of Self-Defense came out in the mid 2000s, I wouldn’t argue with you. The result of that statement refers back to the commodity of dry humor that Riley Stearns is so reliant on in his sophomore outing. It’s a kind of venture that’s wickedly humorous yet even a bit light-hearted in its outlandish integrants; but ultimately it makes for a darker, melancholic social tale of human change. It broadly ties into the ideology of a person having to dive into their head to unlock their full potential, even if that means having to be their own worst enemy.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the high-strung Casey, someone in which Alessandro Nivola’s character refers to as “awkwardly feminine”. We’re used to seeing Eisenberg portray similar characters with an offbeat sense of logic along with varying dispositions through each role. Here he commands our protagonist with an extravagant level of timidity. It provides him more of an empathetic arc and is even at times a strangely relatable character. He depicts the nature of his conflicts and current predicaments with dispassionate humor yet also through tendencies and circumstances that are mildly heartbreaking. As an ensemble everyone prevails in the dominant portions of comedy during the film. Alessandro Nivola is with ease the biggest standout. His sociopathic character contains a persona so unintentionally amusing but also imprudently grim and cynical. He openly lacks sensibility and lives his life unapologetically, with not a shred of care of who or what he harms along the way. The rest of cast is compiled of a lot of lesser-known talent but are all mutually capable and skilled in the creation of their characters select idiosyncrasies. They’re all purposefully blended carefully and effectively with each other, which evidently was a superior preference. Especially since Eisenberg’s character remains as the epicenter throughout everything, with occasional supporting character inclusions and backgrounds.
Although I was unfamiliar with Stearns’ prior debut, I can only imagine how it must be with the aftermath of watching this. The film rides a fine line of dramedy which sprouts from a hypnotic script from Stearns. The whole movie almost transpires inside this inconsequential universe where our protagonists and antagonists face no other ample threat besides one another. It allows for an eclectic variety of our characters tendencies and the events they later partake in. A project that’s so subtly amusing balances a contrast of some of the most depressing motifs and imagery thus far in 2019–which is largely ironic. It revolves around the societal (yet in this case more communal) ideology of acceptance. Not just with one’s self but with the authoritative presence of Nivola’s character and his karate dogma. It pins an emotional weight on everyone’s shoulders and paints his character as this corrupt-like figure that others shouldn’t look up to, but woefully do.
Not just applicable to his screenplay but also to his direction, Stearns achieves great heights at not only directing the story progression but also with each character’s direction. It’s inherently organic and feels sharply cohesive in its attempt at a newfangled approach. It’s warmly reminiscent of old 2000s sleeper hits with the impassive segments of humor and something I can see developing a cult following as the years go by. Stearns is surely one of the more adept and fresh faces in this growing list of individualistic filmmakers.
While the audacity of The Art of Self-Defense is commendable with its rather unflinching style, personally the periodic episodes of erratic character motives makes it harder to stay in to. That certain extent of unconventionality that advances you in, could quite possibly be a determining factor to drive you away. It’s not even on behalf of the footing of the film’s inaccessibility per se, just the irregularity of the circumstances that it constantly continues to outdo each time. A couple of the story decisions towards the unraveling of the third act remain insipid in their subsequent connection to the plot. It’s nothing that’s attempting to be obnoxiously esoteric and in the grand scheme of it all, it’s never anything unbearable or massively distracting.
The Art of Self-Defense is surprisingly bold. It serves as a sedated, unorthodox comedy that maintains a brilliant perception of itself while assimilating undertones of personal standards and self-esteem. It makes for a tragic piece of storytelling and an ingenious alternative route of filmmaking. It’s quite unusual, so what? For a movie like this the weirder it is, the better.
Overall Grade: A-